First Time Layout Planning?? HELP!

New to the these boards and fairly new to the hobby. Some quick background on me that may help those of you out there who wish to respond shape your answers.
-I work as a Structural Engineer in Chas SC, so i have a basic understanding of most math/science/physics etc.
-In college I dabbled with a 4x8 layout for a month or two but had to scrap it b/c of moving appartments every semester. It was nothing complicated, just an HO Layout that came right out of an atlas book of track plans.
-I have been doing lots of reading/research. Have books on track planning, realistic opperation, layout design and have recently subscribed to monthly publications.

All of that being said. I'm having a house built, which should be completed in about 6 months, and the wife has aggreed to surrender the third bedroom. Its a 10'-8"x11'-0" space. I want to incorporate some of the opperations of my home town, Columbia SC, but have minimial "how railroads work" knowledge right now. I would optimally like to have a Scrap Metal Recycling faility to service a Steel Mill, A aggregate quarry, yard, intramodal facility and Port (the port would actually be based on Charleston SC, not Columbia, ive decided to take some liberties with my planning). The first thing i realized was that that is ALOT to cram in a bedroom if i want to go for prototypical operation and provided trains of any real length. It quickly became evident that HO scale would be difficult to work with in my space, so i'm leaning to N.

Things i'm struggling with are, Is my layout reasonable? I'm i attempting too much for a first time railroad? Have i made any critical errors in judgement that should be addressed before the layout design progresses further?

The following is from an AutoCad 2004 file (which i would gladdly email to anybody interested). Min radius is set at 14", min center to center at 1.25", min turnout is #5. I have no current desire to model Passenger traffic. This is a work in progress still. I realize i have a lot of work to do with sidings that are not trailing the train. Max reach is about 2.5' and I'm worried that the 2' reach to the window may be an issue.

I would appreciate any advice, or words of wisdom. (i appologize for the yellow cad linework!

WOW... thanks for the speedy reply. I'm looking though some of the other threads here and there are lots of great layouts. I'm probably overly critical of the bridges though since i design them, But i'm sure that tune will change when i try to build my first :D .

I realized the yellow would be a problem, great for a black cad screen but Terrible for a white backgroud. The image goes from Autocad>PDF>Paint before it makes it to the post so it looses a little something. And i cant turn on all the layers at once or it would be too cluttered.

Some locations are marked "Future" and i still have to arange sidings for them. At this point i have approximate locations for missing items i know i want to have. The mainline (glorified dogbone) is in place as well as one passing track and one cross over. The Steel mill sidings are "roughed in" and the port track is in place. The ports in charleston have only one or two tracks servicing them but are close to yards, i've tried to duplicate that here. I plan to have the yard ~2-3 inches above the surrounding track because i think it would improve the layout visually, but worry that the elevation change may "feel" out of place with its proximity to the port (the coastal plains of SC are FLAT!). Using Google Earth to get an idea of how steel Mill tracks are aranged, to see if i have room to approximate it. I understand it needs alot of work, but as my first attempt at planning a layout i'm curious if anyone can identify obvious problems i may be missing. Again, i'm scratching my head over the 2' reach to the window....

Thanks again...

What is that, about 14 x 16? It will work in either HO or N. N scale will get you 4x more. You can do a little more with the space. If you don't put in staging you will kick yourself after you figure out what it is. Here's another link for you to check out.

What is staging and why do I need it?

Don't rule out passenger service if you go with N. It will be nice at times to set a coal drag running in one direction and a passenger in the other, sit back and crack open a beer while you plan your next move.

What you have is readable, but when you start with your revisions, see if you can get your image size up a little higher, say 900 wide. The easier it is to work with, the more time people will spend with it.
Chas SC Kev Welcome to this forum!
About the steelmill: I don't ,but Ken L ( CSX road slug ) knows aaaalot about it. He has a layout with a steelmill on it + explanation how it works including the movements of the trains on that steelmillarea during the processing/making of the steell!!
The window.....If I where you I'll keep at least max. 2 feet clearence( cleaning the window/ painting itafter 10 years !:D )
About the many "scenes you want on your layout: I think"even in N it will be ( maybe) overcrowded.
If you can decide to chose three of them and work them out this year and use that design as a "guidance" when you realy built the layout. I write guidance on purpose because MRR is like everything in life: each time you shall/will learn something to it and that (almost) never stops!
Is my layout reasonable? I'm i attempting too much for a first time railroad?
If you think/design/plan your new layout (almost twice) very well, I don't think so. But I mean also the scenery that belongs to the subjects you are modeling, and if the planned buildings fit in the space that is still available( steel mill, Harbour: real on scale, small, ship= min. 2 feet! etc.)
So there is alot of work to do...;) :) but that's MRR yea!

Last edited by a moderator:
Thanx Chip and Jos,
As i posted earlier the room is 10'-8: by 11'-0". Not huge by any means. I appreciate the links the two of you have provided and its giving me alot to consider. I know gridlines were not shown, but i had that layer turned off in my Autocad file to clear up the drawing. I'm still "tinkering" with arangement at this point as i'm trying to figure out exactly what i can and cant fit! I'm very worried that im gonna have to flip a coin and make a call between a Scrap steel/recycling center or a intramodal facility before its all said and done. I'm trying to be reasonable about what will fit and have just begun to rough some of those scenic items in. the ship is a scale 320x80 if i remember correctly and the wharf at the port 75x350. Both dimensions are small for typicall cargo facilities, but not completely unreasonable. WHat whould suffer would be container stacking/storage. The actual reach to the window is 2'. Would it be advisible to bring the table 12" away from the top wall?... that would also provide easier access to the top left corner of the benchwork. That should give an idea of scale since the gridlines are turned off. Maybe i should invest in track planning software. Although it would be a shame to waste the hours i spent making cells for the turnouts... all the while going blind on the NMRA's standards charts.

Deffinately a learning process as every book, article or link is new information at this point. I shall try to have all the sidings accounted for with "somewhat" realistic building sizes shown before i post a new image. Also i might try to find a way to get a link to the PDF file so that readers may zoom to their hearts content.

Thanx again guys... now back to a first shot at designing a yard.... and figuring out staging!!!

One minor problem that you might not forsee is that the crossover at the middle turns your "glorified dogbone" into two reverse loops. Electrically this involves a bit more work than just hooking the wires up to the tracks (but nothing involving EE degree level work).

Since you are looking into staging, lets have a little fun and look at multiple levels. I suspect you could take the loop around the planned stone quarry and turn it into a helix (perhaps inside a mountain with the quarry on the side?) that would drop down to a lower level staging yard or even more mainline running. Perhaps you could even drop the stone quarry to the lower level near the exit of the helix - for some reason having an intermodal facility next to a stone quarry just doesn't work for me, but it may be because the local (to Oregon) geology/geography doesn't lend itself to that.

It also gives you enough room that you don't have to flip that coin after all.
Hi Kev and welcome to the Forum!

I see Jos was kind enough to point you to; I'm not so sure about my being an "expert" though, I'm still learning alot of new stuff myself every day. If you do plan on having a steel mill, I would definitely go with N scale because you can fit in so much more with it than with HO. There are also two distinct ways of modeling steel: One is to have a small interchange yard with some foreground structures plus an illustrated backdrop "suggesting" a nearby mill; the other - which is my approach - is to make the mill the 'center' of the layout, devoting a major chunk of model real-estate to it. [Of course you need to really love steelmaking machinery and architecture to even want to do that! :D]

One thing I do know - there are several great intro books published by Kalmbach and/or Carstens, that show how prototype railroads are designed and operated. I wish I'd read them before I built my layout!
I can chime in a bit... Smaller spaces shouldn't thwart a complex layout (neither should age as in the case of my now 72 year old father, check out the plan I got for him now...)...

Nothing you've planned HAS to be huge, you can include a intermodal yard with two tracks, and one crane... A scrap yard, as you know can be small enough. A steel mill DOES NOT have to be huge, you can model a portion, or you can model a specialty mill...

The space you have should not limit you to only N, though it has the benefit of fitting more in the space.

However, in the end, I think, if you opted for N, you can certainly fit all you'd like into the available space. My only idea would be to approximate the yard in, as you may find your "idea" cramped a bit, because, well yards eat space faster then kids eat candy.
Looks like you're off to a good start. I agree that N would be a good scale for that space, as you can fit in 4 times as much as HO

(It's actually 8 times as much when you consider for the same space you get twice the length, twice the width and twice the height, but since height is rarely an issue, for practical purposes it's 4 times as much.)

I do have a couple possible suggestions for you.

Option 1 - Consider switching the location of the yard and the steel mill. The steel mill location would make an ideal spot for a double ended yard. The mill could be inside the dogbone loop without a lot of trouble, and not only that but you could easily put the mill buildings up a bit, and hide the turnback loop with a tunnel.

From the looks of your plan, the area in both locations is just about the same, so swapping them around won't change much of anything, but the track configuration will make for a much better place for a double ended yard.

Option 2 - Want the mill to be the centerpiece of your layout, and in the prominent position you show it in? OK, leave it where it is, but build a hidden staging yard underneath it. Then build a small visible stub end yard where you have it shown now for local switching. That may actually be a better plan... it all depends on what you want for the mill and the yard.
Last edited by a moderator:
I'm probably overly critical of the bridges though since i design them, But i'm sure that tune will change when i try to build my first :D .

There are lots of model railroad bridges out there that make anyone with an egineering background shudder. Eventually you learn to ignore them, but it's quite common to see truss bridges supported in places they don't like to be supported, oddball combinations of bridge types, spans cantilevered so far that they wouldn't support a bicycle, and many other engineering marvels.

There is one well known, and very large model railroad public display that is quite nice, but the bridges drive me nuts as they're rather fanciful.
Still in a design mood...

Chas_SC_Kev First of all ,hope you don't mind but I left some space to open/close(!) and clean the window.....:eek:
Than I tried to figer out the space that is left for the layout...:eek:
The space "inside" for you to control the trains is not much but I think there is acces to everything that is important during driving your trains( and during the construction/building of it!)
Another thought could be the hight of the layout. I was thinking of at least 4 feet so you can see your trains also from beside/front and not only from above, like from a helicopter.( The N scale models are small!)
I choose 4subjects: of course the steelmill, the Harbour, the scrape yard and on the other site the stone-cuarry..
As you can see on the bottom of the drawing, the steelmill area and the tracksfrom/to scrape yard/harbour and the stone quarry are still not (well )designed.I (we) have to work hard on that!
I want the mainline going streight through so no small curves because of a turnout/switch, just like real( ha ha in most cases...) Also I tried to design a "yard " where all these tracks are connected to each other but doesn't interfear the mainlinetrains so that they could run through further...In the meantime you can change freightcars from the scrapyard or harbour etc...
Add also a detailed part of the design...
That's all till now, hope you have comments on these thoughts ;)

Last edited by a moderator:
Not only is it awesome, its light years ahead of my initial thoughts... I realized that i had alot to learn, but didnt realize i was that far behind the curve... LOL. Oh-well, what did i expect from a month of studying!

I love the ideas and input that everyone has provided. Its already helped tremendiously. I hope you took the time to make those sketches because you really love "tinkering" with layouts. I feel very guilty now that you took hours of your personal time to create such detail. That was not my intention. I expected nothing when i posted here, but only hoped for some "words of wisdom"... you truly went above and beyond and i'm grateful!!!

Am i to understand that the Mainline would essentually continue on the lower "staging" level, so that continuious running would still be possible? I like the idea of having the ability to just "let a train go" when showing it off. Your idea of the arangement of the port is interesting and i like the abilty to show two container ships. This would really give it a more lifelike feel.

As i read up on staging yards i deffinatly see their importance... after all, i only have so much room to model and the world is quite large. creating a lower staging level seems to make the most sense, but leads to some concern with the quary. The granite quarry i have in mind as the prototype is located in Cayce SC, and the terrain there is pretty flat. I know many facilities are often cut into a mountain, and this would be optimum for hiding the transition to staging (helix?). The quarry does however have to mound waste materials somewhere (we jokingly refered to it as bigfoot mountain when i was a kid, and got in trouble playing on it more than once). That may serve as the method of concealing the track.

The arangement of the mill works well if the majority of it is to be modeled as a Facade or backdrop or combination of the two. The iron belt is truely impressive, but delves much more into actuall mill operation than i would probably like to do.

All in all your plan seems to "flow" much better than my efforts. And i wonder if maybe its eliminating the dogbone. you also seem to have fit "alot more railroad" into the space than i'm getting. do you think that your ideas leave plenty of room for sceenery, or are they more of a "track first, everyting else second' sort of approach. I find myself having difficutly locating spurs because i'm worried about having them located too close to curves in the track... My initail plan seems to have a curve every time i turn around. The layout books i've been reading have me scared to death of anything that is less than conventional curvature or a #6 turnout.

The yard, as far as i can tell, is 3 tracks (2 below and 1 above the mainline. The fact its pretty much double ended, and that the line to the quarry would need to remain open, solves another issue i've been facing with my initail plan. That is how to get the engine out of my single ended yard when its not trailing my train. i came up with a failry simple solution.... but its not super functional.

I'm really begining to fear the "magnitude" of what my layout may become and am scared to death i'll never get the bugs worked out of the helix...LOL. Maybe i should take the rest of the day off and have a beer while i reflect on it.

I hope to finish my layout as intially planed, then work on alternates. I think that may actually be good for me... create what i think is a "complete" product. They let anyone who cares to tell me what problems they see with it. Plus i think it will be fun to see how drastic the final layout is from my intial try. I still have 6 months till the house is finished, so it will be ahwile till i even get to take "exact" measurements as to how far the doors will swing open!!

Thanks for your imput... Sorry for the length...


Yes I love "tinkering"with layouts

Thank you.. but I just want to remind you (friendly;) ) that this is still only temporary design. I mean: I draw something that came up in my mind and looked if it fits on that particular part of the layout or if there was enough space...and above all if what I've designed was credible concerning the routes and tracks, nothing more. So in your case the harbour... the stone quarry and the steelmill those are actualy the real stories of the layout. And it is up to you of course if you modelled it like real or use some "tricks"( the rocks at the harbour and the stone quarry-mountain/hill)
That is what I like about designing: make a choise( carefully!) and go for it till the last square inch even in N scale.
This layout is not a small one!! If you design it well and take the time for it, it gives you years, many years of mrr fun!
About this:
Am i to understand that the Mainline would essentually continue on the lower "staging" level, so that continuious running would still be possible?
Yes the trains on the mainline have continuious running so you could create some time to go to the fridge and catch a beer!lol
I will try to make a sketch this week from the routes of the mainline also in the "underground" and the places where you could make/built staging yards.
Last thing: the steelmill...that is something I have never seen in my life and read about it so that problem you have to solve with other members on this great forum( CSX road slug!)
Have a nice evening and enjoy your beer...

Looks like Jos has given you quite a bit to chew on <lol>. Looking at his track drawings makes me wonder if maybe I should demolish and rebuild the 'Belt so it is more trapezoidal instead of square... (Ooops there I go again hijacking your thread, sorry about that.) You've gotten lots of good advice about setting up a staging yard so I'll leave that alone.

I see you're planning to model your steel mill as simply another origin/destination point. First let me ask: Do you already have any of the Walthers steel mill structures? If so, get their footprints since that may influence how you end up laying your mill track. Otherwise, you could go to backdrop warehouse and get one of their steel mill photo backdrops. A few kitbashed 'rolling mill' buildings and a small interchange yard (ore & scrap loads inbound - coiled steel loads outbound), and you're in business!

BTW since you still have to wait for your house to get built anyways, let me recommend what I believe is a must-read for everyone planning a layout: John Armstrong's Track Planning for Realistic Operation. It lists a lot of common design blunders to avoid, and gives a great overview of how prototype railraods operate and why they do things that way.
Last edited by a moderator:
The quarry doesn't have to use a mountain anymore to "hide" the mainline going to the staging area under the surface...
May be it could be something like this. A small "stonefactory"(?) (that crunches stones to smaller parts)
The trees at the back and the (big) heaps of sorted stones are covering the mainline...

Last edited by a moderator:
add another drawing to # 18
Please don't pay to much attention to the many tracks or turnouts...It looks very much( actualy they are:eek: ) but I was thinking of an yard that is not overcrowded with freightcars.. and the tracks are already ( almost) taken back by nature...
Only traffic is from the steelmill, the passengertrains(citytrains) and once and a while something from the harbour or the quarry or scrape/recycling
also seem to have fit "alot more railroad" into the space than i'm getting. do you think that your ideas leave plenty of room for sceenery, or are they more of a "track first, everyting else second' sort of approach
Yes, at first site but it is scale N and of cours you can/have to eliminate maybe some tracks if you think they are not nescasery. It is the way I try to design a layout...Always, at the start, to many...everything! and than start the real thinking of where and how much etc...I always try to think: less is more ...but that's still difficult;) ( wishfullthinking:D )

Truelly some impressive stuff there!!! I"m guessing your more than just an pretty good artist. I'd be willing to bet there is a technical/engineering background there too. The perfect slant on the leaders and the arrow heads give it away. :)

I like your concepts but obviously dont want to copy them. I obviously want my layout to be my own. But i'm very aware of the fact that for my first one i can use all the input i can get. I Love the "feel" that the mainline has as it works its way across the table and i think it probably in a very good arangement for having room to create interesting scenes on either side. I have some ideas for the sidings and yard that may allow me to run longer trains that i wish to explore.

I plan on downloading XtrakCad so there may be some lag time while i get up to speed on the program, and i have a deadline at work thats going to require a few extra hours in the office. So it may be a couple of weeks before i can get something here.

I do have that reference and i LOVE it. It was a great read, especially for someone new to the hobby. I also picked up 48 top-notch plans and 101 track plans for model railroaders. They are both... OK... Realistic model railroad design was pretty good and i've just begun to really get into the reference i picked up on benchwork!!! Lots to learn, Fun, fun, fun